On the Marshes by Carol Donaldson – An extract
Little Toller Books
Eastchurch – Leysdown on Sea – Harty Ferry – Faversham
Beyond the hamlet I discovered a beautiful stretch of coast line. A wild beach full of oystercatchers and brent geese vanished into the dune grass and marshes beyond. I hid in the shadow of a pillbox with a fantastic mural of a hen harrier painted on the side and looked out to the sea. Curlews flew low across the bay, joining the growing army of birds feeding on the wet mud exposed by the receding tide. Inside, the blockhouse was a mess. I walked in warily, fearing a dead body or the waste of too many live ones. It was a two-room hut with a little tower with skylights. The slit windows showed views of the bay on every side. I entertained a fantasy of presenting this as a project to George Clarke who could help me turn it into an ‘Amazing Space’ with hidden storage. This was what I wanted: an isolated hut on an undamaged shore, a place with just me and the wildlife. I thought of Stephen Turner’s quest for a place where he could ‘choose to be sociable or not.’ I understood that need. In the last few years, friendship had been the thing that had sustained me but, still, I felt the need to withdraw occasionally, to be on my own. It was part of who I was, and more and more I felt that being who I was was not something I had to apologise for.
Further along I passed a series of strange, elliptical shapes scattered along the path, a public art project now being taken advantage of by gangs of hibernating snails who were finding the cracks and crevices to their liking. Later, I discovered that these had been created by Stephen, inspired by the pillbox where I had sat and contemplated our shared need for solitude.
The sun came out, briefly lighting up the sea. My path ended in a muddy creek and I had to retrace my steps. I didn’t regret the diversion.
The wind picked up again as I found the right path and began the four-kilometre walk to Harty Church. A marsh harrier and a kestrel patrolled the saltmarsh. Pools of brackish water wriggled with wind waves, the samphire was burnt crimson amid the faded heads of sea lavender. It was hard going, fighting my way through snagging grass along the rutted track. I began to feel like I was in Wuthering Heights, walking a lonely path into the wind across the desolate wastes. I entertained a fantasy that I was pale and interesting in long black skirts, instead of the red-cheeked reality in muddy waterproof trousers.
I saw a box on the horizon and prayed it was a bird hide, somewhere to get out of the ceaseless wind. I trudged on. It was a hide, I could see it now, standing on stilts, with its slit windows looking out over a fleet. My legs ached to stop. I needed a drink. The rain began again, the reeds shushed in the wind, the sea wall curved round and round. I wanted to stop, but the little wooden box beckoned me on. I could barely keep walking against the wind. It seemed intent on hurling me into the ditch below. My shoulders ached from carrying the pack. I reached the hut and climbed down one flight of steps and up another. ‘Let it be open,’ I thought. I tried the door handle and it turned. Blessed be the birdwatchers and their little wooden huts.
Carol Donaldson is a nature writer and conservationist. Originally from Essex, she now lives in north Kent. She has worked for a number of Britain’s wildlife charities and currently runs her own environmental consultancy. As a writer, Carol has written for Wanderlust, BBC Wildlife Magazine, and The Guardian. She was BBC Wildlife Magazine’s Travel Writer of the Year in 2011. Her first book On the Marshes, was published by Little Toller Press in April 2017. She also blogs regularly here.